It may just be a negotiating ploy on the eve of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s visit to the U.S., but a White House official for the first time has indicated that the Obama administration might be open to completely withdrawing all U.S. soldiers from Afghanistan in 2014.
The size of the remaining American force has been a sticking point between the Pentagon and the White House. According to published reports, the Pentagon initially wanted to keep up to 20,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014 to help Afghanistan’s military become more self-sufficient. But the White House pushed back, asking for plans that would leave 3,000, 6,000 or 9,000 troops.
In comments to reporters on a conference call yesterday, the deputy national security advisor, Benjamin J. Rhodes, said that leaving no troops “would be an option that we would consider,” adding that “the president does not view these negotiations as having a goal of keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan.”
There are currently 68,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan.
During his three-day visit that starts tomorrow, Karzai will meet at the White House with the president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has apparently fully recovered from the blood clot that was discovered in her brain last week, requiring hospitalization. Karzai will meet on Thursday at the Pentagon with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. He is also scheduled to give a speech on Afghanistan’s future at Georgetown University and to visit in the hospital with one of his military leaders who was injured and transported to the U.S. for treatment.
Karzai will be trying to convince Obama to keep as many troops as possible in Afghanistan after 2014. A major sticking point will be the legal immunity given to the American troops that remain to carry out raids against terrorist groups. Such a force would also need logistical support and arrangements for rapid medical evacuation, as well as helicopters that could whisk them to the battlefield and warplanes that could carry out airstrikes if they needed additional firepower.
According to Rhodes, another objective of the remaining troops would be to “ensure that Afghan national security forces are trained and equipped.”
A recent Pentagon report concluded that just one of the Afghan National Army’s 23 brigades is capable of operating without support from the U. S. and other NATO nations.
Afghanistan experts say Karzai should worry less about American troops levels and concentrate more on eliminating the widespread corruption, patronage and inefficiency in the Afghan government.